Prostitution in Scotland: When you read how 'punters' talk about the women they purchase, you'll want to criminalise paying for sex – Dr Jacci Stoyle

Many years ago, I viewed the strangest art exhibit I’ve ever seen. It was a little black book, shrouded by a black curtain in a tiny space, and you had to be 18 or over to view it.

The reality of prostitution is far removed from comforting fantasies portrayed in films and television (Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
The reality of prostitution is far removed from comforting fantasies portrayed in films and television (Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

On each page were the comments of men reviewing the performance of the women they had purchased in prostitution. It was a chilling read, but it was truth.

If you are wondering how such comments could possibly be known, you will not be aware of the existence of ‘punter’ websites. These are review websites which buyers use to help them decide on their purchases, in the way that you might check out reviews of a product on a commercial website when choosing to buy a kettle.

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Over time, prostitution abolitionists have ventured onto these websites and copied the comments as informative resources.

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During August, Edinburgh’s Festival month, the Scottish Parliament stages the Festival of Politics, where the public can engage with cross-party groups discussing an aspect of their subject.

This year, the Cross-Party Group for Commercial Sexual Exploitation took part and chose to feature the hidden voices of prostitution. These are the voices we seldom get to hear. Those who sell sexual services and manage to exit sometimes choose to write their testimonies in books and articles providing stories of truly, shocking violence that never reaches the headlines. The perpetrators go free and walk among us.

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Prostitution has several faces.

Billie Piper and Julia Roberts may come to mind in the iconic productions of Secret Diary of a Call Girl and Pretty Woman, respectively. Glamorously and comfortingly for the rest of us, this face reimagines the everyday reality of the prostituted woman’s dread and fear into empowering fun, frolics, and fairy-tale myths.

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Then we have the face of “it’s just a job, like any other”, conveniently reframing abusive, prostitution into harmless “sex-work”. This face hides the internet and its propulsion into turbo-charged, industrial prostitution, forcing punter after punter onto young pimped and trafficked women. It’s too horrifying to be true, so we turn away and say it can’t be so.

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You have to acknowledge that the pro-prostitution lobby are very, very good at what they do. But then, a survivor’s voice in the wilderness is no match for a $186 billion global trade in human misery.

The relentless demand, grooming, trafficking, pimping, and the honing in on the most vulnerable hide behind more ‘acceptable’ reasons for prostitution. Poverty, debt, homelessness, substance misuse, childhood trauma are all said to be the cause of prostitution. Really? Aren’t these things the cause of vulnerability and despair? For prostitution, like the tango, takes two.

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Now we come to the most hidden face of all. The buyer, the john, the punter, who is always hidden in plain sight. He is the faceless face of prostitution.

He is your husband, lover, father, brother, son, grandfather, and grandson. He is your colleague at work, your churchgoing friend, your politician, your shop assistant; he is any man. No, I’m not saying all men. What I’m saying is: you won’t know him, even when he is your husband.

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Around 11 per cent of men in the UK pay for sex, but this number rises in other countries, especially those where selling sex is legal or decriminalised.

If you are thinking that this can’t be true, or that the men don’t realise the harm they do, you would have been enlightened at a partly dramatized reading, given at the Festival of Politics event.

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Thanks to the methods described earlier, the hidden voices of both survivors of prostitution and those of the buyers, who choose to exploit them, were revealed.

These voices were spoken by volunteers, but their words were authentic; absolutely nothing was fictionalised. This was speaking truth to power right in the heart of the Scottish Parliament. The comments are hard to hear.

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Over and again, the punters exposed their true face. The reality of finding out that the women they had bought were trafficked, or in pain, or distressed, or barely conscious, or disassociating (this is detaching from reality due to severe trauma) caused these buyers to be very disgruntled.

Such as one who said: “When I asked for a bit of participation on her part, she said, ‘My legs are open, isn’t that enough?’” And “small, anorexic-looking drugged-up blonde… no tits at all, and a skinny, tall drugged-up brunette… both hideous and spaced out.”

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In both cases, indeed in every such instance, the punter still used them. The woman had been completed dehumanised into a thing to be used and discarded.

In Sweden, in 1999, the Sex Purchase Act – often referred to as the Nordic Model – became law, and buying sexual services became a criminal offence. Since then, attitudes have changed and now only 0.29 per cent of men in Sweden buy sex.

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It is another common myth that mostly lonely men buy sex. In fact, men in a relationship are more likely to do so.

In Sweden, the fear of being found out by your nearest and dearest has driven down the incidence of buying sex, even though the punishment is a fine which is commensurate with the man’s wage.

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We must ask ourselves as a society: does this extreme form of violence belong in a progressive modern Scotland? If you think the answer is a resounding no, we must act now and change the law.

Dr Jacci Stoyle, Secretariat for the Cross-Party Group for Commercial Sexual Exploitation

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